Analysis: Afghan Strategy, Greg Craig And Detainees

Melissa Block speaks with political analysts E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the changing strategy in Afghanistan, the resignation of White House Counsel Greg Craig, and the decision to try five Guantanamo detainees — including the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — in federal court.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On that trip today, President Obama also commented on the news that five Guantanamo detainees will be brought to New York to stand trial in federal civilian court. Those detainees include the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

President BARACK OBAMA: Im absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it and my administration will insist on it.

BLOCK: And its with that news about the Guantanamo detainees that we begin our conversation today with our regular political analysts E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Political Analyst, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Political Analyst, The New York Times): Good to be here.

BLOCK: The decision to try these terrorism suspects in federal court, not military court, is drawing condemnation from both Republicans in Congress, also some 9/11 victims' family members. David Brooks, lets start with you. What do you make of this decision?

Mr. BROOKS: You know, I guess Im with them. I dont think a terrorist should be able to commit their acts and get rewarded with a sort of international reality show at the end of it. Im concerned that this trial will turn into a recruiting tool to radicalize further terrorists. I also think its disturbing that we havent figured out what 9/11 was. A lot of people think 9/11 was a national security issue and the trial about it will have national security implications.

Eric Holder calls it the crime of the century, not a national security issue and as a result didnt feel it necessary to involve Barack Obama or anybody in the national security apparatus in making this decision. So, I guess I think the Chinese wall that seems to have been erected between 9/11 and national security is a big mistake.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, David Brooks there calling it an international reality show, but there have been plenty of terrorism trials in federal civilian court before.

Mr. DIONNE: Thats precisely right. I think this is a case of Americans being ourselves and having confidence in our judicial system, confidence in an open process and confidence in the ability of our law enforcement agencies to maintain security. Its gutsy, but its the right thing to do.

I was struck with John Boehner, the Republican leader, saying - fearing that, you know, they might be found not guilty because of some legal technicality. I spoke with someone on Capitol Hill today who said, you know, if liberals said something like that about having confidence in our lacking confidence in our country, theyd be told they didnt love our country enough.

Yes, theres a risk here. If theres an acquittal, all hell will break loose. But judges tend to be deferential in prosecuting terrorism cases. The administration is betting on our system and, yes, theyre betting on an outcome. The president said most exacting demands of justice thats a long way of saying guilty.

BLOCK: Well, the announcement about the Guantanamo detainees coincides with the news today that White House counsel Greg Craig is resigning. And he was in charge of the administrations plan to close Guantanamo Bay by this coming January. Of course, that deadline is now slipping. E.J., what do you think is behind Greg Craigs resignation? What does it mean?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, weve known that he had been relieved of his duties involved in Guantanamo because this hasnt gone the way the administration has hoped. They probably made a mistake in announcing a fixed schedule before they worked out anything with Congress. Attorney General Holder said today it would be hard to close Guantanamo by the January 22nd deadline.

And what you got is just a central problem that Greg Craig couldnt solve. You have 40 rough numbers, 40 of the Guantanamo detainees will be tried, 90 will be repatriated. But there are 75 who cant be prosecuted either because of issues of how the evidence was obtained or because theres classified material involved. Those 75 are posing a very big problem and Congress hasnt helped by saying you cant send any of them here. And, so, Craig is down and someone else is going to have to take over the Guantanamo problem.

BLOCK: David Brooks?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I guess, I think it was a promise that was not doable to close Guantanamo within one year. As for Mr. Craigs role, I, frankly, am mystified. Hes not a newbie around Washington. Hes been a senior Washington presence in the Clinton administration, other administrations. Hes being charged with incompetence, but I wonder if theres a principled argument they had within the administration we dont know about yet.

Mr. DIONNE: Theres still been talk of a judgeship or an ambassadorship. Well see if that actually happens.

BLOCK: Yeah. Lets end by talking about Afghanistan and the impassioned debate within the Obama administration on whether to send more troops. David Brooks, we had news this week that the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has expressed strong opposition to sending more troops. He is a general, was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The fact that this is leaking out, splashed across the front pages, does it speak, do you think, to deep wild tensions in the administration?

Mr. BROOKS: I think ambivalence might be a better word. And, remember, its not about the troop levels. What the argument theyre having is over what our mission is. Should it be an expansive counterinsurgency mission where you clear, hold and build? Should it be a much more scaled back mission - protect a few places, attack terror cells? And I think they are really having a fundamental debate about what were doing there.

And the two concerns are one, the Karzai government: Do we have a partner to hand things over to? Two, and this surprises me, the deficits are playing a very big role in the debate. Can we afford to do this? And so I guess the tone Im left with, I like the fact theyre deliberating, but there is a general tone of ambivalence in can we commit to a big, very long and expensive war with this ambivalence really at the top?

BLOCK: And E.J., does it surprise you that maybe the White House is not showing more discipline in message control here - that this is all playing out in the press?

Mr. DIONNE: I am surprised all this is leaking out given their history, unless all these leaks are intentional on their part. I was really struck by a line in todays New York Times. An administration official saying that the issue theyre trying to resolve is how do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans, as well as the American people, that this is not an open-ended commitment?

Doing both of those things at the same time is very difficult. And when we hear talk of these deliberations, you realize this is a very nearly impossible situation. And the president is in effect telling his aides over and over, is this the best we can do? Can't we do better? Hes still looking for a better solution than is probably available to this problem.

BLOCK: E.J. and David, thanks to you both.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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